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279. Leading the Way to Regionalization in East Central Europe: An Evaluation of Poland's Territorial and Administrative Reforms

Jennifer Yoder is Associate Professor of Government and the Director of the International Studies Program at Colby College. She spoke at EES noon discussion on October 8, 2003. The following is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report 279.

In 1998, elections were held in Poland to create regional councils. Soon afterwards, similar elections were held in the Czech Republic (2000) and Slovakia (2002). This trend invites many questions: Why have these East Central European countries established regions and regional political authorities? What factors drove this process of region-building? What explains variance in region-building across post-communist countries? Why has Poland taken the first and the most significant steps toward regionalization? My approach to answering these questions is to consider a number of factors and incentives that drive the regional reform processes in post-communist countries in general and to examine the Polish case in particular.

At least three sets of factors seem useful in explaining the trend. The first set considers to what extent regionalization in East Central Europe has been driven by historic traditions, associations, and identities. In other words, what are the regional institutional and cultural legacies and are they positive legacies? Second, the democratic ideas and beliefs of political actors and their preferences for the distribution of power in the new system have also shaped the regional reform process. Some actors favored more local control, making their arguments on democratic grounds, while others emphasized the need for centralized control. The localist versus centralist debate did not correspond neatly with the communist elite/opposition cleavage in all post-communist cases. It did in Poland, where Solidarity favored more local autonomy on grounds of democracy and accountability. But it did not in the Czech Republic, where some of the center-right former members of Civic Forum favored centralism on the grounds of greater efficiency and national unity. Finally, it is generally assumed that EU membership, or the anticipation of membership, was an important incentive for regionalizing. The prospect of EU accession, particularly the need for candidate countries to adopt the entire acquis communautaire prior to accession, is thought to have influenced the reform processes in East Central Europe. In indirect ways, the European Commission has implied that the accession countries needed to reform their administrative structures at the regional level to manage structural funds—and it has indicated a preference for democratically-elected regional self-governments with substantial financial and legal autonomy. In the accession negotiations, the chapter on regional policy, chapter 21 (out of 31), did not specifically define the structures needed to manage EU structural and cohesion funds. The general guidelines contained in chapter 21 included having ‘an appropriate legal framework,' and demonstrating ‘program capacity,' and also demonstrating ‘administrative capacity'.

While the European Union was a factor in each case of regionalization, the local circumstances and political dynamics ultimately determine the form regionalization took in each case.

The reforms in Poland

In this case, we must begin by recognizing the longstanding commitment of Solidarity to the decentralization of power and to self-government. In the immediate post-communist years, Solidarity represented a strong voice for regional reform that would be absent from other cases. The first post-communist government led by Solidarity quickly acted on its commitment to local self-government. In devising the administrative reform, the post-communist Polish authorities looked to the experiences of different Western cases as well as the experiences of Polish self-government during the pre-war period.

Although Poland has always been a unitary state, throughout history, certain parts of Poland attained a certain degree of autonomy. As far back as the Middle Ages, wojewodztwo (regions or voivodships) existed and, during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1795, wojewodztwa were relatively big regions representing strong territorial identities, with 22 in the lands of the Polish Kingdom and 10 in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During partition times, some regions, such as Poznan (within Prussia) and Galicia (within the Austro-Hungarian empire), enjoyed partial autonomy.

Following World War I, upon the creation of the Second Republic of Poland, 16 relatively large regional units were created. In the immediate post-World War II period, from 1944 to 1950, the territorial organization of the Polish state largely carried over from the Second Republic. The territorial division of Poland between 1950 to 1973, in contrast, clearly resembled the Soviet three-tier system: with 17 wojewodztwa, over 300 powiaty (subregions), and eventually 8000 gromady (communes) plus a system of rady (councils) guided by the principle of democratic centralism. In effect, at each level of administration, national councils directly supervised the authorities and acted as instruments of the central party.

In 1972, Edward Gierek (First Secretary of the Communist Party) launched a significant reform of the Polish territory and administration. The reforms abolished the powiaty and increased the number of wojewodztwa from 17 to 49. The purpose of these changes was to decrease the strength of the voivodship party apparatus and to destroy the well-established district elites, as well as destroy the emotional attachment to the powiaty.

In the early stages of the post-communist period, the voivodship remained a level of central government administration, though popularly elected bodies were created at the local (city and commune) level. The 49 voivodships still had only limited formal power; namely, they were responsible for executing legislation initiated by the central government. The economic development departments of voivodships carried out government policy but had no budgetary funds of their own. Meanwhile, the deeply entrenched bureaucratic powers in Poland resisted the transfer of powers to lower, self-governing bodies.

In late 1990, a State Commission was created to come up with a proposal for territorial reorganization and suggest a way to implement reform. This commission produced a 500-page report detailing the major points for debate: the delimitation of regions, somewhere between 10-14; the constitutional status of new regions, ranging from subordination to the central government to complete federalization; and the role of the intermediate level, whether self-governing, merely administrative, or a mix.

Between 1991 and 1993, preparations began for administrative reform only to be abandoned after a change in the Polish government. The new Alliance of the Democratic Left (ADL) and Peasants' Party (PP) coalition blocked any new movement on territorial reform. The PP was the major force in opposition to this reform, as it wanted to maintain its strength in agricultural provinces and feared a shift in the power base to urban areas. The post-communist ADL was unwilling to sacrifice its coalition for the sake of local government reform and went along with the PP. Both parties used their powers of patronage to install like-minded authorities in the provincial administration. The government of Prime Minister Pawlak (PP) defended its decision to halt the reforms by claiming order and discipline of the political administration was needed in the transition period.

The lull in the administrative-territorial reform process ended with the change of government in 1997. That year, a Solidarity-based coalition, joining the Solidarity Election Action (SEA) and Unia/Freedom Union, returned to power and immediately began work on administrative reform as well as reforms of education, health care, social security and the courts system. A goal of Solidarity politicians since the transition began, decentralization represented a significant step in weakening the control of the communist-era bureaucracy. It was also seen as part of the process of changing the status quo and modernizing Poland after four decades of communism and four years of post-communist governments. The Solidarity-led government's stated intention for introducing administrative reform was to "change intergovernmental relations in Poland as well as its fiscal and territorial structure, by decentralizing control over public services and public finance to two new levels of democratically elected self-government: powiaty and voivodships." Moreover, the government stated that the reform was designed to "relieve the central government of the tasks that it used to administer under the old, communist system. The redefined tasks of a modern and effective government, freed of unnecessary responsibilities, will now include strategic issues, in both economic and political terms. The Polish central government administration will not be able focus on the elaboration of national economic, foreign and security policies, as well as on supervising the balanced and harmonious development of the whole country."

Once again, the PP opposed the reform, claiming this time that poor farming regions would suffer if they had to rely on locally raised taxes. The PP also still feared that the reintroduction of the powiaty would shift the locus of power at lower levels away from their strongholds in rural areas. Some nationalist members of the SEA, the senior partner of the governing coalition, also voiced opposition to the reforms, fearing that devolution would allow regions to cooperate closely with the German authorities, diminishing Warsaw's sway over its regions.

The new government, led by Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, first proposed reducing the number of voivodships from 49 to 12 and introducing about 300 powiaty. Much protest followed, with some provinces aiming to preserve their status, some joining in protest to counterweight larger ones, and others vehemently opposing the division of their province. The government went back to the negotiating table. President Alexandr Kwasniewski (ALD) endorsed his party's plan to create 17 provinces (the number of provinces in communist Poland before the abolishment of the powiaty in 1975). The government counterproposed with the number 15, which Kwasniewski vetoed. The government then accepted a compromise number of 16 provinces. In the final analysis, "[t]he whole debate about the number of provinces has been nothing but a political tug-of-war: no substantive arguments of any serious weight were presented by the involved parties."

The government's reforms were prepared by the Government Plenipotentiary for the Systematic Reform of the State, Professor Michal Kulesza, who left the post at the end of 1998 when the reform tasks were completed. The 16 voivodships created by the 1998 reform bear some notable resemblance to the pre-1975 17 voivodships and to several historical, geographical and ethnographical regions in Poland. On October 11, 1998 elections to gmina, powiat, and wojewodztwo councils were held. As with elections to the Sejm (Parliament) at the national level, a proportional representation electoral system is used at each level (except in the least populous communes). On all levels, these first elections were dominated by two parties, the AWS and SLD. Together, they won two-thirds of the vote and almost four-fifths of all seats at the wojewodztwo level. The voter turnout was highest for local elections since the beginning of the Polish transition to democracy: 45 percent for the Sejmik (wojewodztwo council), and 48 percent for the rada.

The second elections to self-governing councils were held last October. In 2002, voter turnout was 44.23 percent, which compares particularly favorably with turnout for parliamentary elections in 2001. The party spectrum of sixteen voivodship councils includes significant variations of composition when compared to the Sejm. There currently are six major political parties (parliamentary clubs) in the Sejm: Democratic Left Alliance-Work Union (DLA-WU) with 42 percent of seats, Civil Platform and Law and Justice with 22 percent, Peasants' Party (which was in the governing coalition with DLA-WU until Spring 2003) with 8 percent, League of Polish Families (LPF) with 6 percent, and Samoobrona (Self-Defense) with 8 percent. The remaining 14 percent of seats is divided between six small parliamentary circles with fewer than 10 members (2 percent) each and eighteen (4 percent) unaffiliated MPs.

Virtually all of the major parliamentary parties enjoy varying levels of representation in the regional assemblies. DLA-WU holds 55 percent of the seats in Lubuskie, but only 18 percent in Podkarpackie; LPF's representation ranges from 27 percent in Podkarpackie to 6 percent in Pomorskie; PP holds 23 percent of the seats in Swietokrzyskie but has no representation in Dolnoslaskie, Lubuskie and Slaskie. Five voivodship assemblies (Kujawsko-Pomorskie, Swietokrzyskie, Warminsko-Mazurskie, Wielkopolskie and Zachodniopomorskie) include no representation of minority parties, whereas in four voivodship councils (Malopolskie, Opolskie, Podkarpackie and Podlaskie) a single party or club not present in the Sejm holds more than 15 percent of the seats. The German Minority Party, which currently holds two seats (0.4 percent) in the Sejm under laws governing national minorities, holds 23 percent of the council seats and one vice-marshal's office in Opolskie.

The Sejmiki are primarily responsible for the development and implementation of regional economic policies; their task is to stimulate business activities and improve competitiveness and innovation in the region. The Sejmiki determine the voivodships' development strategies, whose aims are: Nurturing Polishness and the development and shaping of the inhabitants national, civic and cultural consciousness as well as nurturing and developing local self-awareness; Stimulating economic activity; Increasing the competitiveness and rate of innovation of the voivodship economy; Preserving the environmental and cultural landscape while accounting for the needs of future generations; Shaping and maintaining spatial order.

The Sejmiki cooperate with a variety of actors in the course of formulating and implementing the development strategy, including units of local self-government on the voivodship's territory, the central government administration, other voivodships, NGOs, colleges and universities, and international organizations and regions of other states, particularly neighboring states. Secondarily, the Sejmiki are also responsible for higher education, specialized health services, and supra-local cultural activities. The preservation and "rational utilization" of cultural and natural environment also fall under their jurisdiction, as do the modernization of rural areas and spatial development.

These bodies are independent legal entities with independent budgets (like the powiaty and gminy), though they have no tax-levying power. In effect, they are dependent on the "targeted grants" and general subsidies from the central government – a significant constraint on the Voivodships. As the main decision making body at this level, the Sejmiki elect governing boards to exercise executive authority, which are headed by elected Marshals. The Wojewoda are state appointed officials who represent the central government at the regional level. The Wojewoda supervise the activities of the other levels and can annul decisions made by the self-governments if they are inconsistent with statutory law. Clearly, Poland remains a unitary state, though one where some power has been devolved

Why Poland embarked on regionalization earlier than the rest

In addressing the European Union as an influence, it is evident from the statements coming from the Polish prime minister's office that European integration was at the forefront of the reformers' minds when pushing for and designing the new regions. As stated before, the wojewodztwo can enter into bi-lateral and multi-lateral cooperation with foreign partners, and when Poland enters the EU, the regional governments will play a role in managing Structural Funds. As the Polish government sees it, therefore, Polish regions can become one of the leading forces in the process of Poland's integration with the European Union in the near future. Moreover, the government sees these reforms as increasing citizens' ability to control and monitor public institutions and to ensure that public moneys are spent effectively. By decentralizing responsibilities, the central government relieves itself of performing local tasks that it performed poorly, allowing itself to focus on truly strategic issues. The reforms should also allow Poles and Poland to take full part in the economic and security structures of Europe, and in the development of European and Euro-Atlantic security structures. They will help the Polish state secure its position in the arena of international politics as a fully sovereign, resourceful, and responsible partner."

Furthermore, the government states that these reforms are intended to transform Poland into "a modern state, capable of using effectively its economic, social and political potential; a democratic state, whose public and private values belong to a shared European civilization; a state that functions in accordance with clear and transparent procedures, and is permanently controlled by democratically elected representatives of the people … a state in which local and regional communities can rebuild their identities and manage their own affairs, and in which the principle of subsidiarity is respected by all levels of government; a state capable of shouldering the responsibilities and sharing the benefits of participation in supranational organizations and structures." Another guiding principle, that of subsidiarity (the idea that policies should be carried out at the lowest level) "constitutes one of the foundations of the European Union. It also forms the basis of the restructured Polish state." Effectiveness, transparency, openness, accountability and flexibility are also principles central to the new reforms. A new system of public finance would render public administration entities "more transparent and accountable to the electorate."

Looking now at the institutional and cultural legacies of regions in Poland, despite the changes in number and relationship between the various tiers of administration, there is a long tradition of meso-level territories in Poland. Self-government, however, was not part of that tradition. Unlike in other cases, such as the Czech Republic, the regions were not viewed as being a creation of the communist regime and therefore discredited. Moreover, despite the instability of Polish borders and population during earlier periods—a sense of regional particularlism remains. Regional identities tend to center around medium-sized cities. There is also a clear north-south as well as west-east dimension to regionalism in Poland. It must also be noted that regionalization was supported by the few minority populations in Poland, in particular the Germans and Silesians.

Finally, the set of factors that focuses on political actors and their beliefs sheds important light on the regionalization process in Poland. Here, there was a clear proponent of regional reforms: Solidarity and its successors. In general, regional reforms tended to be favored by organizations and individuals who, before the collapse of communism, were associated with the democratic opposition. This was clearly true of the post-Solidarity parties in Poland who emphasized subsidiarity, citizen participation, checks on power, decentralized authority—and decommunization.

Another factor putting Poland ahead of other countries in this area was the swift action taken by the AWS-led Buzek government in 1997-1998. The official statements aside, the political debates and delays surrounding the reform clearly indicated that the process was related to the on-going conflict over decommunization. While the Solidarity-led governments saw administrative reform as a way to wrest power from entrenched political forces in the bureaucracy centered in Warsaw and in the communist-era voivodships and gminy, the PSL and SLD resisted the reforms as useless reorganizations and a waste of valuable public funds.

The opponents of reform clearly feared a loss of authority to subnational, self-governing units. While the opponents of reform were vocal, in the end they probably comforted themselves with the notion that regionalization would represent a relatively harmless set of changes; the new "self-government" units would be given a very weak mandate and would be severely under-funded. Whether they were right remains to be seen. Much will depend on the health of the Polish economy, budgetary politics in Warsaw, efforts to change the reform laws to give the regions power to levy their own taxes, and the future of integration in an enlarged EU.

In closing, it is fair to say that, in Poland, rather than a society-wide consensus on the benefits of and necessary steps to reform, the decentralization and regionalization processes were bogged down by partisan bickering, political maneuvering, and fears on the part of some communities of lost political and economic influence. Poland's political elites were, for the reasons I have outlined here, the first to overcome these obstacles.

About the Author

Jennifer Yoder

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